Our M.P., Thora Richards, stood up to speak. She resembled a determined lynx. I looked around and worried on her behalf. Some people stared at her like starving wolves. That evening she was about to address a gathering of parents on the issue of reforms to education, and so we were in an assembly hall. I knew this place, it was my old school, the local one for the deaf. I remembered getting into fights with other pupils. I didn't recognise anyone in the audience. A mainstream school had been bombed so tonight hearing parents were using this one.The portrait of a former headmaster stared down and reminded me of Mussolini. I don't have any children, my job was to photograph this meeting for 'The Deaf Standard' magazine.
The atmosphere turned ugly as people heckled Mrs Richards about issues other than education. The war was over but many people were homeless, there was no end to rationing in sight and men coming home didn't know what they'd be doing in peacetime. Mrs Richards gave as good as she got. She drove ambulances in France during World War One, so it takes a lot to scare her. My hearing colleague Clive translated words into signs for me. After a couple of fraught hours the audience rose and left, passing a square clock and brass light switches on white walls. A posse of journalists from other publications interviewed our M.P. and then left the building. Next Clive and I stepped up. He questioned her and I photographed her by a Victorian Gothic window. Clive and I made our exit after most people but ahead of her and her husband.
Darkness had fallen. A full moon shone above, like a snowball for an angel. Now the lights are on again you don't see as many stars as during the blackout. Street lamps illuminated the town's museum. An entire wing had been demolished by a Nazi bomb and hadn't yet been cleared or rebuilt. Timber beams protruded from dusty rubble, like dinosaur bones. A lump rose in my throat as I looked at it and thought of all the knowledge that had been lost. I... I used to love visiting it. A green cupola rose from the part still standing.
Clive tapped my shoulder. "Chad, I can hear noses in the rubble," he signed. "Somebody's under there." "They can't be," I replied.. "If anyone was trapped in there they'd be dead by now." Then a young man's head rose from behind a pile of stones. He looked around, saw us and his face showed fear. He must've seen the crowd leave earlier and thought everyone had gone. He scrambled out of the wreckage as fast as possible. I saw that he held a bag in one hand. Of course, he was looting the ruins. He started to run away from us. Tense with anger, Clive set off in pursuit and I followed him. The looter ran fast, through pools of streetlight, but Clive caught up and grabbed him by the scruff. My colleague turned the other man around to face him. Our enemy raised one knee and rammed it into Clive's groin. I watched in horror as my friend fell to gritty paving stones. The thief dropped his bag, picked up a plank and raised it high. Clive clasped both hands to his head and went ridged with fear. Terror surged through me. Was I about to see him killed?
I begged my body for more speed. The looter must've heard me running as he turned from Clive to me. I knew him. His name was Daniel Cummings.
He swung the plank. I ducked. I drove my fist into his abdomen. That hurt my knuckles. He dropped his weapon. His features twisted with pain. Rage spurred me on. I kicked that plank away. He tried to punch me. I parried the blow. We circled each other. Heat rose through my skin. My armpits felt sticky. Cummings lunged at me. I tripped him up. He hit brutally hard paving stones.
Mrs Richards came running, out of the dark and into yellow street light. Her husband was close behind her. I learned later that Clive and Mr Cummings had both cried out during the struggle, and this had alerted the other two. My opponent scrambled to his feet and ran away, past the museum's cupola. I tried to catch him but stumbled on a beam and fell over. I wasn't seriously hurt but he escaped. He left his bag behind, near glass from a shattered window. I was glad I hadn't fallen on that.
Sorting things out took some time. Mrs Richards ran to a phone box, then called the police and an ambulance. She examined me and Clive while we waited. He told her not to fuss. Clive fought in the First World War so maybe this was nothing compared with that. I think it hurt his pride to accept help from a woman.It wouldn't bother me as much, I think women have proved they can work as well as men during the war. Luckily my friend's injury wasn't as bad as we first thought. What a relief. He sat on a mound of debries; it can't have been comfortable. Close by, stained glass peacocks adorned the museum's front door. One had a crack like a claw mark in it.
Paramedics arrived and treated Clive at the scene. Before they drove him to hospital, police officers appeared and questioned us. Clive translated for me. I felt curious as to what was in the sack, but all this had to be done first. Cumming's face appeared in my memory. It was easy to see how he used to charm the girls. Was he still at it?
The final question for me was "Mr Parry, how did you learn to fight?" Night air cooled my warm forehead. The pain in my knuckles started to ease off. Headlights of a car pierced the darkness, then moved on. Tops of streetlights were curved, like necks of metallic swans. I signed my answer by lamplight. Mrs Richards and her husband listened as Clive interpreted, I felt guilty in case this was delaying his treatment, but answered as concisely as possible.
"When I was at school I had a fear of spiders. Some of my classmates found out and they bullied me because of that. One of the teaches tried to defend me, but he couldn't watch all of us all the time. Well, this master taught me how to defend myself. Oh, and you know how I've met our thief before? He's the brother of one of those bullies."
Mrs Richards insisted that Clive be taken to hospital; more details of my story could wait. We shook hands and it was done. My parents arrived and we hugged each other. Mum signed "don't ever do that again Chad!" I'm twenty-seven but just then might as well have been seventeen. For all that it was a bit embarrassing I understood her concern. Dad eyed Mrs Richards warily. Mum shot him a look that said "don't make a scene."
We stood together, before a pointed arch over the school's front door. Conical turrets either side of it reminded me of Dracula's castle. At last a police officer covered his fingers with a hanky and reached into the bag that Cummings had left behind. My spine tingled with anticipation.
He pulled out a headband with gold leaves hanging from it. They were shaped like teardrops and pointed at the tips, and veins in them were reproduced in detail. They dangled from a string of blue and red beads; I found out later they were lapis-lazuli (blue) and camelian (red). As it gleamed it reminded me of the first carp I caught. It looked out of place amidst the bomb damage. It should've been in a temple perfumed with incense.
"How old is that?" I asked while Dad interpreted.
"Its about 4,600 years old," Thora Richards replied.
I paused to take that in, then signed "where did it come from?"
"From what was to become Iraq, but it wasn't called Iraq then, they called it Sumer. I officiated when an exhibition here was opened," Mrs Richards explained. "I wasn't an M.P. back then, but I was on the county council. I saw this headband then. It made me proud that we had something so old and precious here."
"I'm surprised you felt like that," Dad said. "I thought Labour was only concerned about the future, not our past."
"The Sumerians helped in creating civilisation as we know it," she replied. "They developed writing, cities, wheels and bronze. Today we take these things for granted, but once they were new and exciting or rather disturbing, depending on your point of view. They transformed their world. I'm not put off by their being ancient, its a fascinating period in history." Dad nodded, then looked at her with a new respect.
You'll be pleased to know that Clive made a full recovery. The police went after Daniel Cummings, but they havn't caught him yet. They found out he had two different wives, one in this town and another miles away. When the truth came out, one woman collapsed in tears but the other threw a stool through a window - while shouting "I'll kill him!" Cummings got one of them pregnant and had to marry her, but didn't say he was married already. He tried to loot the headband because he was struggling to support both women, and one child, on a clerk's wages. Sometimes I wonder if he's got a third woman we don't yet know about, and has gone to ground with her, like a desperate fox. I wouldn't put it past him.